Community in Poverty: A Philadelphia Case Study

When thinking about the idea of community, one may be tempted to imagine idyllic pictures of neighborhoods where each house is adequately separated from the next and where magnificent vistas of mountains or city skylines portray the world from which we are comfortably distant. But is that true community?

I spent most of my childhood years in relatively affluent suburbs.  I spent my college career at a Christian college whose president often touted the importance of community on campus.  I now live in the cozy confines of Capitol Hill.  And yet the greatest form of community living I’ve ever experienced was a summer I spent living in Port Richmond, Philadelphia. 

Port Richmond is a diverse neighborhood in North Philadelphia (36% white, 17% black, 44% Hispanic, and 2% Asian) with a median household income of $24,048, compared to $67,014 in the suburbs where my parents live and $58,707 on Capitol Hill.  The median home price is $27,000 and 49% of its residents live in poverty.  This data comes from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ State of the City report for 2013. 

My roommate, who studied anthropology, warned me not to fall into what he called the short-term missions illusion – “I spent a week in Honduras and was amazed by their faith”.  And so I hesitate to draw significant conclusions from a three-month jaunt in the inner city. 

But the experience did give me much to reflect on. The kids on the block referred to my roommate and I as Uncle Chris and Uncle Steve and would spend hours every summer night playing on the sidewalk in front of our house.  It was as close-knit a community I’ve ever experienced but it was a community that was living in relative squalor.

I heard the life story of our neighbor, who had a crush on me because I “looked smart” (because I would come home from work wearing dress pants and a button down shirt).  She had five children from four different fathers, had had four abortions, and spent 19 months in jail for meth possession.  And yet her twin boys – the studs of the youth on the block – were happy and rambunctious.

My housemates and I also spent many nights sitting on the porch and talking with a couple that lived a few houses down from us.  I found out recently that after being informed that they being evicted, since they hadn’t paid taxes in years or the mortgage in months, they left in the middle of the night, taking everything in their house, including the copper pipes.  And yet their daughters were the sweetest little girls I had ever met. One night they brought their bead set over to our porch and made bracelets for each of us, and made us promise that we would wear them to work the next day.

My experience among affluent evangelicals and political conservatives taught me that there are generally two ways of looking at poverty: (1) The poor are either helpless and in need of our grace and charity, or (2) sloths leaching off hardworking Americans in the form of government welfare. I think both of these perspectives are misguided. 

This is the working class – people who have often struggled in an underfunded education system and in communities lacking the resources to prevent crime and vice.  But the neighbors that I met are also people who understand the struggles they’ve had, take responsibility, and work hard to make sure that their children can have a better life.  Sure, I knew some people who would sell their food stamps for 50 cents on the dollar so they could buy alcohol and cigarettes, but that was not the norm.  Many of the parents on our block worked two, even three jobs so that they could provide the necessities their children needed – and maybe a few things they didn’t need, like a trip to Hershey Park during the summer. 

People living under the poverty line are not leaching, en masse, off the goodwill of benevolent taxpayers, and nor are they in need of charity.  And more importantly, many people don’t want that charity.  They are not looking for handouts, either in the form of government sponsored or church/community group sponsored charity. 

Our society (and particularly our evangelical circles) must get out of the habit of thinking of those living in inner city poverty as “other people” and realize that there is much we can learn from them.  I’ve lived in an affluent suburb where wealth and social status (even the illusion thereof) dominated daily life.  I’ve also experienced an evangelical community where true community is a chimera – where spiritual one-upmanship and faux-righteousness are king. 

 Community is a funny thing.  As David Spangler, a spiritual philosopher,(not someone I’d necessarily seek to emulate) stated, “Some people think they are in community, but they are only in proximity. True community requires commitment and openness. It is a willingness to extend yourself to encounter and know the other.”  

My experience in Port Richmond revealed a community truer than any I had ever seen.  It was a community based not simply in proximity or coexistence, and not in false premises of stature or social standing.  It was a community based in things much more fundamental – love, toil, and even sometimes pain.  It was a community where self-sacrifice for the sake of others superseded selfish goals. 

And if the quality and heartfelt sincerity of the children on our block is any indication, it is a community of progress.     

-Chris Hartline graduated from Houghton College in 2012 with a degree in history and political science